In an election year such as this one, just about everything that gets done - or not done - at City Hall seems to have political overtones. And that seems to be the case even with funerals for the poor, which City Council member Nadine P. Winter, up for reelection to her 6th Ward seat, has thrown into the political fray.
Democrat Winter recently introduced a bill that would take away from a single, white-owned funeral parlor the $227,000-a-year business of burying all the city's poor and instead disperse the funerals among various funeral directors in the city, many of whom are black.
One of those in a position to clearly benefit from passage of that legislation is Edward M. Dudley, who is not only black and a funeral director, but also the chidf fund raiser for Winter's reelection campaign.
It's not really quite the way it may seem, Winter said the other day. Of cource Dudley was one of those with whom she discussed the legislation. "I tried to make this political. I just happened to know . . . him," she said.
And Dudley, who somewhat reluctantly acknowledged talking with Winter about the legislation, said he will not actively seek any of the business.
"I wouldn't have no parts of it," Dudley said. "I'm not interested in welfare (funerals). I'm not degrading welfare, but I'm not interested in their business as such. It just never appealed to me." But then again, he said, if any of the business came his way, he would not reject it.
"My business aspect and my being treasurer (of the Winter campaign) has nothing to do (each other). I just happen to be a funeral director."
On the surface, the Winter proposal seems simple. The city currently gibes out a single contract each year in the lowest bidder to provide funeral and burial services for those in the city whose survivors cannot afford to do so and for poor persons who have no survivors.
Chambers Funeral Homes, which is based in suburban Maryland but has a Captiol Hill branch, has had the contract for the past two years. For three decades, Chambers has run a funeral trade designed "not to get the classes but the masses," according to its vice president, Robert Chambers.
While the average funeral in the city costs about $1,300, Chambers does it for the city for $487 - primarily because of the guaranteed high volume of work, Chambers said. He performs about 40 city funerals each month, and more than 90 percent of his business at the Capitol Hill funeral home comes through the city contract.
Winter maintains that some people have complained to her that they do not like to go to Chambers and are often degraded by the service they receive. For example, she said, Chambers is required to provide limousine service from the funeral to the burial and back, but some people have to take a bus or taxicab to get to the funeral, because transportation to the service is not always provided. Winter also said she has received complaints about the way the actual burials are done.
So Winter proposes giving a grant of up to $500 to the individual family, allowing it to select its own funeral director. She also recommends changing the present law to allow the surviving indigent family to pay up to $500 of its own money for additional funeral services the family feels it can afford. Present law permits only minimal extra expenditures.
"It seems only equitable to make this money available for use by survivors with whatever funeral establishment they choose," Winter said. "In addition, the spreading of city funds, through freedom of choice by families and friends of a deceased would be in keeping with both the letter and spirit of the Minority Contracting Act of 1976." That law requires that 25 percent of all city business go to minority-owned firms.
"This form of respect is long over-due," Winter said.
"Poor old Mrs. Winter, wh just doesn't understand," said Robert Chambers. "Poor peopld don't have an extra $500 to go spending on the funeral, and there is no funeral home in town - in the country - that will have a complete service for $500 (provided by the city). There's no way. There's nobody that could do it."
Firm President W.W. Chambers added, You might as well take away the food stamps and say don't buy from Giant or Safeway, but buy it from the corner grocery store because it's owned by a minority, even though it will cost you more."
Herles Tillman, a funeral director who is chairman of the city board that licenses funeral directors, appeared with Winter to announce the legislation and said later that he could provide a comparable funeral for less than $500.
"Most of your larger black funeral homes have that same kind of funeral for $500. Traditionally, a black family has had to bury as cheaply as they could," Tillman said.
Would the $500 include everything, Tillman was asked?
No, he responds, it doesn't include the grave, he said. "There's going to have to be some concessions made for the grave," he said. Chambers gets graves for $175 because of his high volume premises. (He buries at only two cemeteries.)
"We work on the premises that if cemeteries could do that for Chambers, they could do it for a welfare recipient. We'll work that out when we gets to it."
Winter apparently is aware of that problem, too.
"I have gotten them ($500 or less) funerals for several people," she said. "Of course, they (the funeral directors advising her) are saying there are other things I have to look at, like the burial plot."
The funeral business has been called "the last consumer frontier." Etta Horn, director of the D.C. Citywide Welfare Rights Organization, said she fears that funeral directors will take advantage of the poor and grieving family to sell them a funeral they cannot afford.
"The funeral homes are going to do a cheating business," she said. "The casket they'll be showing me I won't want because it looks too bad. Pretty soon, I'll wind up in debt, paying $50 a month for the next three years.
"They're going along on some black-white bull - . What you're looking for is a decent funeral, and it's not a matter of where it's at," she said. "We fought for respectable burials in this city. To open it up to where everybody gets $500 would be a sad day."
Tillman said that the District is the only state in the country that is still contracting all of its welfare funerals rather than giving out individual grants. In Maryland, for example, welfare survivors are given a $400 grant."I think it's working better in Maryland," Winter said.
"You know what they're doing for $400 in Maryland," said Chambers, who also has funeral homes in SIlver SPring and Riverdale. "They're cremating for $400. That's all they can afford."